By: Vladimir Motchoulski
The urchin told me to jump.
“Jump,” he said. “Go on. Jump.”
I looked away, down and away, toward the crystalline water shimmering at the bottom of the magnificent limestone gorge. Its seductive blue skin calmed the bruising summer air. It whispered to me great revelations about the life I kept always nudging forward to no end. A life forever churning an inch beyond my furthest grasp. My life, but not my own. The urchin then nudged me with his elbow and my heart quit. I raised my fist to slug him.
“Chill out man,” he said. “The water is over twenty feet deep. You’ll be fine.”
“You first, then. Go on. Jump.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
The bastard jumped. No hesitation. He hung for a quarter-second in the air, as if to mock me, then plummeted hard and fast. A modest splash churned between the walls of stone.
I looked up at the cloudless sky, then down at the urchin. He tread water, grinning. His jump defied all logic, all forms of classic thought and enlightened calculation. How? Why? Ugh.
No old master would ever try this leap, this unfathomable glide across a late summer hadean void. No esteemed mathematician, no iconic physicist, no great auteur of mind or word or brushstroke would ever even think to dare to try it.
In my puzzled reverie all my favorite demigods took their shot and balked on the third step and turned away and ran from the rim of stone. No, proclaimed all the great generals of yesteryear. At first sight of the chasm, they all ordered their trumpeters to change the tune and march the other way.
Then came the urchin. Talentless, drab, remedial, unkempt urchin. He jumped it without a care. Without a hint of grace. So goddamn brutish and improper in his ways. It meant nothing to him. He knew it. He knew that I knew it. Five crude, idiotic, unathletic steps. A simple lateral push off the outermost rock. A clunky splashdown in the cold deep water. No scratch on his body. No trace of any moral scar. A dimwit’s spirit glides forever upon a cloud of unrelenting bliss.
Not. Fucking. Fair.
I ordered myself to stop playing the role of coward and observer. I had to take control and make something happen. Something real.
Relax. You got this. Take it easy. Take it slow. Use your mind. Think your way through it. Imagine yourself flying over the gorge and down into the safety of the water. Think and think and think. Nothing wrong with thinking. You are not him.
The velocity of the fall did not matter. An awkward entry into the water would hurt, but it would not cripple me or break any of my bones. The probability of landing did matter. Landing in the water, of course. Not on the rocks. I studied the ledge, studied the short take-off run. Over the pale rocky spine before my feet lay a gentle convex bend of smooth rock wall, followed by a sudden concave outcrop lined with pillars and blades of crumbling, menacing limestone. Beyond that lay an eroded gray slab. Beyond that, the water. My water. For now, the urchin had it. He would never give it up. I would have to take it from him.
Now the urchin became alarmed. He yelled something. Raised his free hand now and then and made some kind of gesture. What did he say? From that distance, any no means yes, and vice-versa. He continued to wave and yell and bark in his shrill, obnoxious, tone.
Forget about him. Get on with the calculus. Leap forth into the geometry of tangible planes and lines and all the infinitesimal ghosts stuck between them. I judged what I could see against what I could not.
Urchin, water, rocks, clear blue sky. Water, sky, rocks, and urchin. I scrambled the frame until it collapsed into numbers. Pure numbers. Math. The language of the universe. The rocks and the water became a field of vector probabilities with one exact and true outcome. The sky bent upward into an extradimensional array. The reel of time spooled away from the origin of everything, and the magnificent sun looked down on me like the eye of a god studying a mote of self-aware dust, so perfect and sublime. The urchin turned into an eraser smudge of incalculable chaos. I had to ignore him, but I could not. That fucker had already ruined everything.
I took five paces backward as I thought of them. My social circle sans the urchin. The three other math whizz kids who knew and understood the real me. They would be proud of me, yes, but they would never do this. They would never entertain the urchin’s call.
So, then, why did I?
We had been a good quartet of brains, albeit a flawed one. Full Scholarship, full scholarship, international academy, and me. An insecure late bloomer bound for the west coast, towing a modest grant for a mid-level technical college. I could beat two of them on both speed and accuracy. The third one was a freak. I could not run with the freaks.
I had no plans to break the wheel or do anything obscene with my life. I saw myself as a future rank-and-file geek at NASA. I’d count the bricks of the stairway to Mars. Or I could teach somewhere quiet and get fast tenure. No problem. I tested well. With a good connection I could even join the team of semi-wealthy number-crunchers working for that pompous, egomaniacal, extortionist libertarian asshole who started that asshat private space company. What was his name? Who cares? Fuck it. Time to jump.
Five quick steps and I’m over the edge. A-here-ah-we-ah-go.
So I jumped. And fell. And fell.
A rogue bolt of lightning hit the dry tree perched on the far side of the gorge.
No. The lightning came first. I jumped after.
No, no, wait. I never jumped. Lightning struck. I fell. The urchin tried to tell me something important with his stupid high-pitched voice and his stupid, stupid waving hand.
And so, I fell. And fell. And fell. And—
Dark silence. The ages passed through me. Strands of time constricted me like serpents. Around and around and around again. Death is the open maw eating the curling tail of life, feeding death, eating life, feeding death. No. Not yet.
White sheets, cold hospital noise. Gray static buzzed like angered wasps trapped in my capillaries. The blue sky’s phantom electricity scrambled the last snapshots of my greatest summer memory and rearranged them into a lifelong prison.
Mind, locked in a wooden box, locked in bone, locked in a body, locked in pain, locked in numbness, locked in a shell of putrid off-white plaster. What time is it? I forgot what time it could be. I took a second to wake up and an hour to blink my eyes.
“You pulled through,” the urchin said. He stood over me like a nosy morgue tech stuck in training. “They said you had a fifty-fifty chance, but I didn’t believe them. I knew you’d pull through.”
“Fuck you,” I said. Mouth full of stones. No words.
“Don’t talk, man. Your mouth is like a bunch of crushed marbles. They stopped the bleeding first, then they set the bones. They’ll do the cosmetic work later.”
“I told you not to jump, but you jumped anyway.” He took a drink of water from a paper cup embellished with blue and magenta swirls.
“Fuck you,” I said. Something behind me started beeping faster.
“I’ll go let your folks know you’re awake. I can’t stay long because I have class tomorrow morning. Speaking of which, it was a damn shame. They gave your college grant away to some rando idiot. I don’t know who it was. All I know is that he didn’t deserve it. You did.”
I squirmed inside my body cast. I’d trade the world and all the stars above for one decent chance to strike him. He crumpled up his water cup and leaned over me. He patted me on the head where the cast’s plaster ran astray.
“Yes, you did, oh gosh, yes you did. You deserved it all because you are such a good boy.”
I screamed without a sound.
The urchin stepped away.